The Red Deer Rebels will look to add some scoring punch with their sixth overall pick in the Western Hockey League bantam draft Thursday in Calgary.
But if the right forward isn’t there when their turn rolls around, then they’ll add some defensive punch.
In other words, the Rebels brass at the draft table — senior scout Shaun Sutter, director of scouting/player development Randy Peterson and GM/coach Jesse Wallin — will follow the standard procedure and take who they feel is the best player available.
Still, a top-end forward is at the top of their wish list, and Peterson is confident they’ll get one.
“We feel we need to address our scoring and skill up front, so that’s what we’re going to look for,” he said Tuesday.
Not that the Rebels representatives will make a rash decision and settle on a forward they don’t necessarily covet (Peterson, for obvious reasons, wasn’t offering any names) with either of their first- or second-round selections. “We have to be sure what we want with our early picks. Those are critical picks for us,” said Peterson.
“Where we’re picking in the first round, we’re pretty sure we can get the type of player we’re looking for. Having said that, if the right player isn’t there we won’t be afraid to change our plan and look for a defenceman.”
By all accounts, there are at least six forwards of major quality available, with Mathew Barzal of the Burnaby Winter Club the consensus cream of the crop.
He’ll almost certainly go first overall to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
A five-foot-nine, 155-pound centre, Barzal scored 36 goals and collected 101 points during the 2011-12 season and led the BWC Bruins to the Western Canada bantam championship, the club’s second in succession.
“He’s about a close a thing as you’ll find to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins,” said Peterson.
“Ryan was probably a touch ahead of him as a bantam, but Barzal might have a bit more bite in his game. But when you look at him he reminds you of Ryan with the way he plays the game.”
Barzal’s BWC teammate, Adam Musil, is another keeper, a six-foot-one power forward who some scouts project as a second-line centre in the WHL.
However, there is some concern that Musil will report only to a team on the west coast, meaning he might be passed over by the likes of the Prince Albert Raiders and Prince George Cougars and fall a half dozen spots to Everett or possibly Victoria.
And then again he might be gone by the time the Rebels’ turn comes around, if they’re even interested.
“Musil can score although he does that a little bit differently. Is that exactly what we’re looking for? No, but he brings you pro size and he’s a sure-fire NHL player by the looks of him,” said Peterson.
Other forwards who will likely be snapped up early include Jansen Harkins of the Vancouver North Shore Winter Club, Tyler Soy of Cloverdale, B.C., (53-106-159 in 46 games), Nick Merkley of Calgary (41-23-73 in 32 games), Giorgio Estephan of Edmonton (the Alberta Major Bantam League scoring leader with 43 goals and 100 points in 32 games) and Glenn Gawdin of Richmond, B.C. (58-32-90 in 43 games).
“Soy is as tremendous playmaker with great vision. He makes people around him better,” said Peterson.
As for Harkins, the son of former NHLer Todd Harkins . . .
“He’s a great two-way player who brings everything to the table that you would want in a player,” said Peterson.
Estephan is a proven sniper who is expected to excel at the major junior level and Merkley is a strong skater and a dynamic and talented player.
Gawdin flew under the radar somewhat over the past season as a member of a relatively weak team (Seafair) that didn’t compete in most of the big tournaments.
“If was a little bit of a struggle to find him at times and he didn’t have much to play with,” said Peterson. “But when he played against the top teams like Cloverdale and Burnaby they had their hands fill with him. He was tough to contain.
“He’s a power forward who plays the game pretty hard and he’s a shooter more than a passer.”
Brad Morrison from the Okanagan Hockey Academy (80-57-137), Colt Conrad from Manitoba (71-65-136) and Saskatchewan product Jayden Halbewachs (55-34-89) are three smaller forwards who might interest the Rebels, but if their preferred choices are gone then they’ll go with a defenceman with their first pick.
Tate Olsen of Saskatoon, Thomas Lenchyshyn of Steinbach, Man., Joe Gatenby of Kelowna and Parker Wotherspoon of Surrey, B.C., would appear to be the top rearguards available.
Olsen, said Peterson, resembles a certain NHL star.
“He has kind of a (Chris) Pronger look to him. He’s active in the offence and can be a shutdown type as well,” said Peterson of the six-foot-one, 173-pound blueliner. “He has tremendous upside.”
Lenchyshyn, at six-foot-one and 185 pounds, is a rugged and physical defenceman with good wheels. He played at the midget AAA level against players three years older this past season and looked right at home.
Wotherspoon, meanwhile, is a defensive, shut-down type and Gatenby possesses top-notch offensive tools.
It’s unlikely that the Rebels will get a shot at any of the aforementioned players with their second-round pick — 30th overall — and may target a goaltender instead.
“Sometimes the (top) goaltenders start to go pretty quick so we’ll have to see how things unravel before we decided what we do with our next two picks (second and third),” said Peterson.
Nick McBride of the Burnaby Winter Club has won back-to-back Western bantam championships and is considered to be a franchise goalie. Travis Childs of Camrose and Zach Sawchenko of Calgary could also be selected early in the draft.
“McBride is a kid who relies on his size (six-three, 165 pounds) but having said that, he’s calm in the net and plays well in the big games,” said Peterson. “Childs is a bit raw. He had a pretty good year and he’s a big (six-two) goaltender with some really good athletic ability.”
Red Deer netminder Carson Franks likely rose in the rankings for at least a handful of WHL teams with his performance in the recent Alberta Cup and could be among a small crop of players drafted out of Central Alberta. Red Deer defenceman Jesse Freeborn is another possible pick.
“It’s been a bit of a weak year (in the Red Deer area),” said Peterson.
The Rebels have one pick in each of the first, second and third rounds, two in the fourth, one in each of the fifth and sixth rounds and two in the seventh, at which point they could be done.
The third-round pick came from Everett as part of the Landon Ferraro deal two years ago and the Rebels also own Saskatoon’s seventh-rounder as part of last season’s deal that sent Locke Muller and Matt Pufahl to the Blades.
“We have nine picks in the first seven rounds and we might decide that that is enough,” said Peterson.